Grand Cards: Remembering Jay Bruce

Monday, May 3, 2010

Remembering Jay Bruce

It's May 3rd and it has already reached this point.

The Tigers and Yankees have each played just over 20 games, but I can't wait any longer to look at the evidence of who got the better of their off-season trade.

The principle pieces in the trade were Curtis Granderson going to New York and rookie Austin Jackson coming to The D. So far, it looks like a complete steal for the Tigers.


The trade almost feels lopsided at this point.

Now don't get me wrong. I have been very, very impressed with Austin Jackson so far this season. He has hit well, fielded well, run the basepaths well--he seems primed to have a long and fruitful major league career and a handful of accompanying accolades.

Meanwhile, Curtis Granderson who, I would like to say, started off even better than Jackson just wrapped up an epic 4 for 37 slump with a Grade 2 groin strain that will keep him out for four weeks, at a minimum.

Clearly, the Tigers made out like bandits in this trade. Austin Jackson is the second coming. Curtis Granderson is finished. Etc.

Lest we forget, Austin Jackson started the season with EPIC numbers by having a historically high batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and striking out at an incredible rate. These things are known.

Yet something has changed. For one, Austin Jackson, all of a sudden, stopped striking out. On April 27th the Detroit Free Press printed an article that included this story about Jackson.
Jackson has taken a step to reduce the strikeouts; he did so after he saw a highlight last week of a swing by Tampa Bay third baseman Evan Longoria. "He wasn't trying to crush the ball -- he wasn't using a lot of effort, but he was taking his hands right to the ball, and he hits the ball farther than anybody," Jackson said. "I looked at some of my tapes, and I was trying to generate power with my body. I was pulling off a lot of outside pitches. So now I'm trying to use my hands more instead of getting my swing started with my body."
Prior to that quote, Jackson had struck out in every game he had played in his major league career, racking up an incredible 32 in his first 19 games. Starting on the 27th he didn't strike out for four straight games, and has only struck out twice in his last 26 at bats. That is good news indeed.

Still, it is hard to wrap your head around the rookie who is leading the major leagues in hits, but continues to terrorize opposing teams thanks to a BABIP that appears aided by a half dozen rabbits' feet and pockets full of four leaf clovers that he picks from Comerica's center field grass.

To help explain, let's turn to a Golden Boy from days of yore:
How unlucky was Bruce? Would you believe that last year he was dead last in BABIP in the entire National League? It's true.

Even if we assume that Bruce's approach last year was flawed - and we happen to believe it was (he swung at bad pitches, tried to jerk the outside pitch over the fence, and did not wait for his pitch) - he was still unlucky.

By the way, the early sample size from this season indicates he's improving in all those categories.

I've seen estimates that Bruce's BABIP with normal luck would have been anywhere from .270 to .294. That would have meant anywhere from 12 to 18 more hits during the year - or 35 to 50 points in batting average.

Thirty-five to fifty points!

Even if those 12 to 15 hits are all singles, that's 60 to 100 points more of the beloved on-base average plus slugging.

And what do you think Bruce's BABIP is this year? Would you believe that a week ago it was .205? He was hitting in worse luck than he did last year, when he was dead last in the league. But through Thursday's games, he was up to .250, indicating that his luck might be improving.

And he's been hitting the ball on the line 20 percent of the time. The estimators say his BABIP should be somewhere between .290 and .310.

This is Jay Bruce. The same Jay Bruce who did this when he made his major league debut.
He has made an early impression with the Reds, and it's not just about his .432 batting average, .533 on-base percentage or .757 slugging percentage. Right from the start, he showed he fit in with an unusual ability to laugh at himself.


No surprise, Bruce is getting the last laugh. Heading into this season, in many circles he was considered baseball's best positional prospect. Yet, a start that included 16 hits in 30 at-bats is an attention grabber, no matter what the expectation.

Asked to explain his Red-hot start, Bruce said simply "Sample size."

The best part of that entire article?

Volquez: Another Pedro?

Um, no.

So here we are, one month into the season. One month? Jay Bruce's torrid start in 2008 is just a memory faded by a poor approach and unbelievably bad luck. I'm pretty sure the Jeff Franceour Hall of Fame plaque was melted down after he was unceremoniously shipped out of Atlanta. Jason Heyward...well, he's just awesome. What can I say?

As for Austin Jackson, I think Kurt at Bless You Boys says it best:
Just be sure to keep a spoonful of perspective when thinking about it. I get the feeling some people out there would have been happy to swap the players one-on-one knowing what they do today. But asking "Granderson Who?" before 20 percent of the season has even been completed is a bit too much for me.

If you flipped Granderson's completely bad luck on balls in play (.267) with Jackson's unsustainable good luck (.500+), would you like this trade nearly as much?

Of course, many still would, and we heard from them throughout the offseason.

But give a little time for the hots and colds to even out before making too definitive of a statement. The season doesn't end the first weekend in May; a lot can change.

Indeed, the future is bright for Jackson--something I think few will dispute--but let's not fool ourselves into thinking that he will continue on this path. I'm not saying it's not possible, I'm just saying that it has never been done before in the history of baseball and to continue in this way would make him the best hitter of all time. But yeah, he could totally do it.

The point is this: Austin Jackson has made the impression that we all needed him to make. He is our anesthetic for the trade that shook up the town. He is the future. He has been a key reason that the Tigers have been able to win night after night--even after their starting pitchers imploded one by one. And while I advise caution, please, as we all set our expectations for the rest of the season, we can shoot for any number of things instead of say, shooting for the moon.

How about Rookie of the Year, to start? Or even better, just be good enough to keep the Tigers in a playoff hunt. There's no reason to believe that either of those are out of reach.

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